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Eurovision 2019's Israel Location Draws Controversy


A Dutch heartthrob won last night's Eurovision Song Contest. The pop music competition is one of the world's biggest televised events with an estimated 200 million viewers.


DUNCAN LAURENCE: (Singing) I spent all of the love I've saved. We were always a losing game.

MARTIN: That's the winning song "Arcade," performed by Duncan Laurence from the Netherlands. If you've never seen it, Eurovision is kind of pop music meets the Olympics, with singers representing two dozen countries. This year, Eurovision was held in Israel, which drew controversy, as NPR's Daniel Estrin reports from Tel Aviv.


DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Eurovision opened with a pop remix of "Hava Nagila," the Jewish wedding song.


NETTA BARZILAI: Ladies and gentlemen, live from Tel Aviv...

ESTRIN: Israel's spunky singer, Netta Barzilai.


BARZILAI: Welcome to the grand final of the Eurovision Song Contest 2019.


ESTRIN: When she won last year, Israel won the right to host. And she shouted, next year in Jerusalem. At that time, the U.S. had just moved its embassy there, siding with Israel's claims to a city Palestinians also claim. Most European countries opposed the U.S. move, so there were questions. Would European countries send their delegates to an Israeli Eurovision in Jerusalem? Would the show's many gay fans feel welcome in the conservative city? In the end, the show was in Tel Aviv. Meanwhile, pro-Palestinian activists called for a boycott of Eurovision. During the show, Palestinian artists played an alternative concert streamed online.


BASHAR MURAD: (Singing) Imagine there's no checkpoints.

ESTRIN: Palestinian Bashar Murad sang John Lennon's ballad "Imagine" but with lyrics about Israeli military checkpoints in the occupied West Bank.


MURAD: Because Eurovision is being held in Tel Aviv just a few miles away, where millions of people are living under occupation, with restricted movement, restricted freedom and lack of basic human rights.

ESTRIN: Pink Floyd's Roger Waters asked delegates to boycott Eurovision because of Israel's policies toward Palestinians. But none of the contestants boycotted. William Lee Jones (ph) runs the Eurovision fan blog Wiwibloggs.

WILLIAM LEE JONES: We need to remember this was founded after World War II, reconnecting Europe after the carnage and destruction of the Second World War. And we're in Israel with all of the connotations that that has. It's a much bigger, more complicated picture.

ESTRIN: I met fans from Australia, Norway and the U.K. who came to the beach to watch the show on large screens. Israeli Or Asher.

OR ASHER: I think it's great that a lot of people come to Israel and see it. I'd like to see Israel as, like, a fun country, a liberal country not a country where war all the time and, like, missiles and stuff like this.

ESTRIN: Madonna performed with a surprise political message. She had two dancers wearing Israeli and Palestinian flags and crossing arms.


MADONNA: (Singing) Last forever...

ESTRIN: And Iceland's heavy metal band held up Palestinian flags, drawing some boos in the crowd.


HATARI: (Singing in Icelandic).

ESTRIN: After the show, I met Peter Dutcheck from Poland, in a sequined shirt, and his friend Victoria Poleykova from Bulgaria. And I asked them about the Palestinian flag-waving.

VICTORIA POLEYKOVA: I know it's a rebellious act, but Eurovision is also about that breaking boundaries and uniting people rather than excluding.

PETER DUTCHECK: I mean, I wasn't happy about it. Like, Eurovision was never meant to be a political thing, and it should never.

ESTRIN: Next year's Eurovision contest will take place in the Netherlands, which won the contest this year.

Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Tel Aviv.


LAURENCE: (Singing) Oh, oh, all I know, all I know - loving you is a losing game. All I know, all I know... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.